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Stanford looks to the future of alternative worksites

Noel Hirst

This is a repost of an article that was featured  in Stanford News on Nov. 27, 2018. See original article here.

Stanford’s alternative worksites in San Jose, San Francisco and Newark are designed to help provide relief from long commutes and high housing costs.


When Stanford employees are able to reduce their commutes, they live less stressful lives and achieve a better work/life balance. That’s one of the findings from Stanford’s pilot program of a co-working office space in downtown San Jose.

The 13-month pilot was considered successful and has transitioned to “proof of concept,” meaning that its long-term feasibility is now being assessed. Meanwhile, two other alternative work locations have been opened in Newark and San Francisco. The objective of the sites, according to Noel Hirst, assistant vice president for business affairs finance and facilities, is to help provide relief from long commutes and high housing costs.

Hirst talks about the success of the San Jose pilot, the new worksites in Newark and San Francisco, and the future of Stanford’s remote worksite program.

How many offsite work locations does the university now offer?

We have three. We offer 35 workspaces in San Jose on East Santa Clara Street. In July, we opened a site that has 22 workspaces in Newark on Balentine Drive. In October, we opened 28 spaces in San Francisco on California Street. Participants may book only one full day per week, which allows for the broadest participation. All three sites are at capacity, have waiting lists and require reservations in advance.

What is the biggest takeaway so far from Stanford’s experiences with satellite worksites?

The largest takeaway is that people’s lives are improved when they are able to reduce their commutes. That’s true even if it’s only for one day. We also learned that we needed to include monitors and keyboards at every desk at all locations. We had incorrectly assumed that people would just use laptops and cell phones.

We also found that employees in San Jose were using not just the university suite, but also the kitchen and dining space, phone rooms, conference rooms, hang-out areas and so on. We think that’s a good indicator that people will find they like the workspaces that will be available in Stanford Redwood City when it opens next spring.

What is the objective in offering satellite worksites?

We’ve been prompted to rethink how we work by local affordability issues, the upcoming opening of the Stanford Redwood City campus and increased telecommuting. Plus, it’s clear that new and evolving technology makes it easier for us to manage a virtual workplace while still being effective and productive. The long-range planning process elicited suggestions for how to confront these issues, and that’s ultimately what led to the work alternative sites.

And there is good reason to pursue the ideas. National surveys show that, when it comes to attracting talent, workplace flexibility can tip the balance over pay. In other words, people will choose a job with a lower salary in favor of greater flexibility. And there are a lot of advantages to embracing a flexible work culture, including easing of long commutes, enhanced employee well-being, increased productivity, reduced turnover and transportation sustainability. But this approach takes practice. So our first site in San Jose allowed us to test how this might work, given Stanford’s culture and the expectations of Stanford managers.

It’s important to understand that alternative worksites aren’t meant as a substitute or to replace telecommuting. Alternative worksites are ideal for employees who prefer a clear line of separation between work and home, the capacity to interact with others and the ability to take advantage of different workspace options.

What was the result of the San Jose pilot?

Some 481 employees took advantage of the San Jose site. The pilot ran from October 2017 to October 2018, consisting of six rotations of eight weeks. We worked with a number of groups, including the administrative deans, the Administrative Planning Executive Committee and the University Management Group on the rotations to accommodate the different approaches administrative units wanted to take.

There were 35 workstations and one conference room, and we could accommodate 100 employees. Employees signed up to work one or two days per week from the site; 98 percent of the participants said they experienced a shorter commute, and thus enjoyed more personal and family time and less stress; 73 percent said they were more productive at the remote site; and 79 percent said they were more engaged and energized.

Some of the people participating were able to reduce their commutes from an hour and a half to 30 minutes or less. About half of the participants were able to take advantage of public transportation. Many of the respondents to our survey told us, essentially, that they now had their lives back.

Also, 99 percent of the managers involved in the pilot were supportive of the university expanding alternative worksites to other locations, and 78 percent said they saw no loss of connectedness among the employees who participated.

We did find some challenges. Sometimes people signed up for the space, but then didn’t use it. Some were called back to campus on days they had hoped to be at the worksite. Still, we felt the pilot was successful, and we are continuing that alternative location. As a result of a mid-pilot review of the San Jose experience, we were asked by the provost to expand into the East Bay and San Francisco.

What are the technological tools that employees can take advantage of when they need to interact with someone in a different location?

Zoom videoconferencing is probably the most obvious, and upgrades are being made throughout the main campus to provide more and better opportunities for videoconferencing. But there are other tools, like Slack, which is a messaging tool; Google Team Drive, which is for sharing files; and Jabber, through which you can use your computer or mobile device as a telephone.

But it’s important to emphasize that everyone at Stanford needs to adopt these tools, not just the people who will work at Stanford Redwood City or our alternative worksites.

What does the future hold for additional alternative worksite locations?

Our hope is to develop a long-term strategy for alternative worksites using the San Jose results and an analysis of use of the Newark and San Francisco sites. We also are eager to offer our results to the Long-Range Planning Affordability Task Force and to learn from its work.

But in the meantime, we will be converting the Bambi Modular on the corner of Panama and Via Ortega into a 50-person touchdown space for Stanford Redwood City employees who need to be on the main campus periodically. The location will be operating just like existing worksites, with more booking variability in days and hours.

Learn more about Stanford alternative worksites on the Cardinal at Work webpages.

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